First, thanks to all of you for voting in my poll. I really appreciate your interest in what I write here; it means a lot to me. You voted that you wanted to read and talk some more about some of crime fiction’s trends and possible future directions, so here goes . I find the topic of what’s happening in crime fiction really fascinating and I’m glad you do, too. Crime fiction has evolved and continues to evolve; if it didn’t it would become far too stale to win and keep fans. Here are a few more of my ideas on some of the changes crime fiction has gone through in the last years.
Motives For Murder
In classic and Golden Age crime fiction, motives for murder tended to be extrinsic. Murderers in those novels kill for gain, out of fear or anger, or sometimes for revenge or love. For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate two deaths. Enoch Drebber and Joseph Stangerson are American visitors to London, staying at a rooming house. Drebber is murdered and at first it seems as though his landlady’s son Arthur Charpentier is the culprit. Charpentier’s innocent, though, and the police have to look elsewhere for the criminal. Then, Stangerson is murdered. Holmes finds out who the killer is and what the motive is. In this case, it’s revenge for an old sin.
Gain is the motive for the poisoning murder of Emily Inglethorp in Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles. In that novel, the victim has a large fortune to leave and several relations who would be only too glad to have it. Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings work together to find out which one of the people in Emily Inglethorp’s life was desperate enough to kill. Lots of other Golden Age novels and stories are also built around motives of gain, fear, revenge, or some other extrinsic motive, and even today, lots of novels feature that kind of motive. Mine do.
But in the last hundred years or so, we’ve learned quite a lot about the way the human mind works. Beginning with the work of people like Sigmund Freud, we’ve begun to learn more and more about psychology. That knowledge has found its way into crime fiction. Today’s crime fiction features quite a number of psychological motives for murder. For example, Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone begins this way:
“Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.
This is a novel about, among other things, the effect of “being on the outside.” It explores psychology in a way that early crime fiction didn’t. So does 13 Steps Down, another of Rendell’s standalones. Rendell’s certainly not the only one to explore psychology in her novels. Martin Edwards does the same with his Lake District series featuring DCI Hannah Scarlett and Oxford historian Daniel Kind. Many other authors do, too.
Today we even see novels that explore mental illness such as bi-polar disorder, depression and PTSD. I see this trend continuing as we learn more and more about the way the human mind works. In a way, that adds an interesting dimension to the genre. On the other hand, our interest in psychology has also been part of the motivation behind the proliferation of serial killers in today’s crime fiction. Some of them work quite well, but it’s very, very difficult to do that successfully.
Early crime fiction and a lot of Golden Age crime fiction tends to be almost clean-scrubbed in its depiction of life. Of course there are exceptions but as a rule, the detective fiction of the time is fairly sanitised. For example, in Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Poison, mystery novelist Harriet Vane is tried for the murder of her former lover Philip Boyes. She’s got a motive, too, since they’d quarreled shortly before his murder, and since she had arsenic, the murder weapon, in her possession. Lord Peter Wimsey attends the trial and, smitten by Vane, determines to clear her name. He gets his chance when the jury cannot agree on a verdict and Vane is granted a new trial. Wimsey interacts with several people in this novel as he searches for the real killer, including people who don’t live in very reputable parts of town. And yet, we don’t get dark, seamy descriptions of life there. Nor are we given a real description of what life in prison was probably like for a woman at the time this novel was written.
With the advent of the “hardboiled” genre from authors such as Raymond Chandler and later, John D. MacDonald, we begin to see grittier descriptions of neighbourhoods and people. For example, we get a very uncompromising look at Glasgow in Denise Mina’s Garnethill trilogy. We get also get a very harsh, uncompromising and gritty look at Melbourne in Peter Temple’s Jack Irish series. Those series have lots of differences, but what they have in common is that the author does not take pains to “scrub up” the setting, the people, the motive for murder, or much of anything else. We even see this grittiness in some lighter novels, although it’s less marked. In Marth Grimes’ The Anodyne Necklace, for instance, some of the action takes place in London, but it’s hardly the London that the tourists see. Inspector Richard Jury and his friend Melrose Plant visit some very seedy homes and pubs, and Grimes doesn’t mince words in describing them, although it’s also fair to say that she also doesn’t get as gritty as descriptions we see in some other series.
Along with the increased grittiness we see in more recent crime fiction, there’s also a lot more explicitness. Perhaps this trend started as readers wanted crime fiction that was more realistic.
In early crime fiction and much Golden Age crime fiction, for instance, there are essentially no mentions, other than in oblique terms, of physical intimacy. Certainly there aren’t graphic descriptions of it. There are also essentially no explicit, graphic depictions of violence, including murder. For example, in Josephine Tey’s The Man in the Queue, an unknown man is stabbed while waiting with a group of other people to see a play. We know the man’s been murdered, but we don’t get every gory detail. And in Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Poison, we know perfectly well that Harriet Vane and Philip Boyes had an intimate relationship. Yet the details of it are not described.
With the advent of noir and other “hardboiled” crime fiction, we begin to see more descriptions of violence. Certainly the violence in Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man is more explicit than it is in Tey’s work. We also begin to see more explicit description of physical intimacy in this kind of crime fiction than in earlier crime fiction.
In some of today’s crime fiction, both violence and physical intimacy are described in sometimes very graphic detail. And even crime fiction that doesn’t dwell on those scenes sometimes includes them. For instance, we see both in Deon Meyer’s Blood Safari. That particular novel works well because neither the violence nor the intimacy overtakes the plot. And that’s perhaps the key. Including explicitness doesn’t have to ruin a novel; in fact sometimes it falls out naturally from the plot. It’s when those scenes are gratuitous that they take away from a novel.
What’s ironic is that these scenes, and the treatment of formerly taboo topics such as rape, are increasingly common while at the same time, certain things such as pejorative terms and “isms,” which used to be perfectly acceptable in crime fiction, no longer are. Those developments give an interesting perspective on how our views of what is and isn’t acceptable have changed.
Will this trend towards explicitness and the treatment of very taboo topics continue? In the short run they probably will, as books with this theme sell well. I am hopeful that in the long run, it’ll be the quality of the plot and characters rather than explicitness that people will want. People may in fact become bored with books that offer nothing but relentless explicitness and those books will stop selling. In closing, let me just share what Agatha Christie had to say about this same topic back in the mid-1930’s. In Death on the Nile, we meet once-popular novelist Salome Otterbourne who’s has increasingly lost her audience, mostly because of the themes of her books. She and her daughter Rosalie are taking a cruise of the Nile when the real-life murders of fellow passenger Linette Ridgeway Doyle and other characters prove far more gripping than anything Otterbourne’s written: Here’s what Rosalie Otterbourne says about her mother’s declining sales:
“People are tired of all that cheap sex stuff… ”
What do you think? Do you see changes in motives for murder, realism/grittiness and more explicitness? Where do you see the genre heading from here?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bon Jovi’s The More Things Change.